Mr. Mayor, I really would have liked to have seen you in Linn Park this afternoon.
As rallies go, it was a lot larger than the press conference calling out John Rogers for supporting Scott Beason, but far smaller than any of the HB56 protests I’ve seen there. The crowd in Linn Park was an interesting mix of black elites, aspiring young black leaders, and well-meaning repatriated white people, with few representatives of the business community and a couple of old-guard black leaders sprinkled in. In all, there were more than 100 people for the rally to save Birmingham School Superintendent Craig Witherspoon’s job.
Of course, you had your old buddy Frank Matthews there, too. While looking for a parking place, Frank yelled out his car window something about having a press conference in front of the Confederate War Memorial and he spent the rest most of his time at the rally taking pictures. But I understand y’all aren’t on such good terms anymore, so I won’t hold his drive-by outburst against you.
But not you. You weren’t there.
It’s Good Friday. A lot of people had holiday plans and there are religious services. You’re a practicing Catholic, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. That’s what Councilor Steven Hoyt said when I asked him why none of his city council colleagues were in the crowd.
When I talked to Hoyt about what all this means for the city, he brought up a couple of good points.
First, for the students getting ready to graduate, their diploma’s could have an interim superintendent’s signature on them. Those who are lucky enough to graduate, that parchment paper will have documented the turmoil they passed from.
Second, Witherspoon has asked the city to put a 3 mil property tax increase to a public referendum. The proceeds from that tax would go to the school system. And you, mayor, have signed on in support of it.
But who is going to vote for a tax hike, when school board members are trying to lop the head off the superintendent?
“It creates a lot of uncertainty, and it jeopardizes the millage increase,” Hoyt said.
But there’s something more.
Five school board members called this meeting Friday with no notice to their four unlike-minded colleagues, and they aborted it after Alabama State School Superintendent Thomas Bice all but threatened to take over the school system if they proceeded with the meeting. Why they would schedule a special-called ambush if they already have the five votes they need to can the superintendent leaves me scratching my head, but these aren’t the brightest politicos the city has to offer.
Or are they?
You see, that’s the question. Let’s face it. We’re less than a decade into this experiment we call an elected school board, and so far it seems to have been an enormous failure. The superintendent’s office should be equipped with a revolving door for all the folks they’ve hired and fired. The city schools couldn’t bleed population more if they shot the students. School board members have had physical altercations, and behind closed doors to boot. This business this week leaves me wondering whether they’re abiding by the state’s open meetings law. And now they’re ready to jettison yet another school chief.
By many accounts, Witherspoon has done a good job, especially when you consider it’s a miracle he would even want it. The state superintendent thinks enough of him that he’s ready to colonize the city schools to keep him in the position. And you evidently believe he’s trustworthy enough to back his tax plan. The main folks I see who don’t like him are the Alabama Education Association, which has turned public schools into a jobs program, and the five board members who want to bring playground politics inside the board of education building.
For Birmingham, this is a crisis of democracy. It’s has been the practice of as many mayors as either of us can remember for City Hall to take a hands-off posture toward education. That’s the school board’s job, not the council’s job. That’s the superintendent’s job, not the mayor’s job. You have a choice, mayor. You can keep with tradition, and leave yourself vulnerable to someone who is willing to break with it (Oh, I don’t know … Hoyt?) or you can show some leadership and wrestle Birmingham’s greatest, decades-long, slow-motion crisis.
And this problem echoes beyond city limits, too. A lot of people in the region will be watching this mess on the evening news, and once again they will be clucking their tongues at what’s become of Birmingham. And be mindful that many of the same people who voted for the school board also voted for you. Are you going to leave that board to be indicative of the same people who put you in office?
It’s time to wrestle with this problem. This bull has been pawing the dirt since Richard Arrington held the same office you hold now. When he looked back on his legacy, his greatest regret was not dealing with education. A lot of people who don’t know better see you as Arrington 2.0. I know better, or at least I think I do. This is your opportunity to prove you’re somebody different. So far, you’ve done pretty well. As long as you don’t soil your legacy with some scandal, you’ll probably go down in the books as a good mayor. This is your chance to be a great one.
The school board will likely address this issue again at its regularly scheduled meeting next Tuesday.
Mr. Mayor, I really would have liked to have seen you in Linn Park this afternoon, and I’d like to see you at the school board meeting next Tuesday.